A Quartet of Prime Ministers in Israel’s First Quarter Century

Categories: Israel

Although still in my 30’s, from the standpoint of Labor Zionist experience, I was an “old man” when I arrived in Palestine in 1947. My observations and evaluations of Israel’s leaders, both political and military, are recorded throughout this book, but of particular interest are the first four prime ministers, all from Labor, who led the country through its tremendous growth and the five wars between 1948 and 1974.

David Ben-Gurion, prime minister from 1948 to 1953 and from 1955 to 1963, was a fascinating composite of visionary prophet, astute politician, small-town bigot, self-sacrificing idealist, ruthless executive, a poor judge of individuals, oblivious to his shortcomings. He had superhuman powers of concentration on the immediate goal, was impatient of human frailties, a devotee of knowledge and culture, obsessed by the virtue of democracy while practicing periodic tyranny, totally oblivious to his public image or his negative manipulative tactics.

Ben-Gurion’s attitude toward women was one of total equality, as socialist dogma required, but he flattered the Hadassah ladies like a gentleman, almost a dandy. I don’t recall ever seeing him laugh deeply, although he did appreciate clever or pointed sarcasm. He was too manipulative to be unaware of himself, but he saw himself as an agent of history in which other people were instruments. I admired him and appreciated his leadership without hesitation, but I could never free myself from seeing his clay feet. At one meeting I voted against my own views, which coincided with his, because I rebelled against his high-pressure technique that he used to impose agreement. In sum, Ben-Gurion caught history by the tail and was the right man at the right moment.

Moshe Sharett, prime minister from 1953 to 1955, was as close as possible to being a complete contrast to Ben-Gurion. Although no less intelligent and in agreement with the basic tenets of the Labor Zionist movement, his personality was totally different. He was extremely well-mannered, pedantic in all details. He drove us all mad by correcting our Hebrew grammar even in the midst of a heated discussion. According to reports, he did the same at governmental meetings.

He was cultured, meticulous, cautious, deliberate, and totally principled. His nickname, with a measure of derision, was “the student”. The false implication was that he was weak and wobbly. In truth, he was long-winded, but that’s because he wanted to be absolutely certain that his views were completely understood. On the other hand, he was disciplined. When I once arranged a meeting with prominent intellectuals and explained that twenty minutes was his time limit, he delivered one of the most brilliant statements of policy within my memory. These facts had nothing to do with his public image. Many politicians assumed that he was weak, and they acted on that premise. That was the basis of the disastrous Lavon affair (too complicated to describe here but fully elaborated in the history books).

Sharett had no stomach for the endless and inevitable intrigues, suffering silently. All of us discovered ultimately that he confided his aches and pains to his diary. He was respected, appreciated, frequently loved, but never feared.

Levi Eshkol, prime minister from 1963 to 1969, was totally different from his two predecessors. He was, in my opinion, the best of all Israeli prime ministers. To begin with, he had more genuine trepidation about the job and therefore searched for good decisions after genuine consultations. He had accumulated a vast store of practical experience, possessed unflawed common sense, a devastating sense of humor, sensitivity and empathy to others, good judgment in selecting people, healthy human instincts, astute political perceptions, total devotion to the “cause”, undisguised shortcomings, and an awareness of priorities. His earthy, unassuming straight talk captivated Lyndon Johnson.

His big mistake, on the eve of the Six-Day War, was to bow to the public clamor for Moshe Dayan by the lobby named in Israel “The Merry Wives”. The cocky Dayan didn’t object to the adulation, while Menachem Begin manipulated the occasion to his political advantage to enter the unity government. The Israeli public, including the military command, was delighted, but Eshkol erred by yielding, thereby leaving a false imprint on his image.

He also made a mistake by appearing at a crucial radio announcement tired and unprepared, which produced a stammer that was misinterpreted by both public and commentators. His third big mistake, after the War, was to allocate the Western Wall to the Ministry of Religion, instead of to the archeology department. I winced when I heard of that decision on the radio. All of these observations do not change my estimate of his rank among prime ministers, all of whom had their own list of mistakes, misjudgments, and flaws.

In terms of personal proximity, Golda Meir was my closest prime minister. I had known her since 1932, when we invited her to lecture at the University of Minnesota. Since she was a former neighbor from Milwaukee and an American pioneer in Israel, I felt very close to her. In Israel I worked with her in the movement, in the Labor Ministry, and at many meetings. Golda was full of heart, compassion, good intentions, and loyalty to the cause, but she was neither weak nor pliable. She had no sympathy for self-seeking politicians, the vacillators, or the hypocrites, of whom there were plenty. Not having an extensive academic background, she was not an intellectual, but Abba Eban’s caustic remark that her vocabulary consisted of 500 words and she didn’t use all of them was an unwarranted slur. She had the capacity to zero in on the main issues, was extremely persuasive in speech, charming as a person, and devoted herself unsparingly. We all knew of her unsatisfactory romantic life, but in those days there was less prying, less attention, and no public revelations. There were whispers – all sympathetic.

Her major error was in not appreciating fully the plight of the North African immigrants. Working ceaselessly for their physical and economic welfare, she was not attuned to their social, cultural, or emotional problems. Neither did she appreciate the Palestinian political and psychological frustrations. In her preoccupation with performance there was less time for empathy for the opposition, despite her humaneness and compassion for individual needs and the suffering of the immigrants.

She had little sympathy for the feminist movement as such. Having succeeded in a man’s world, she saw no reason for special women’s privileges. She supported the feminists but had no desire to be active in their movement. Perhaps it was not a priority for her considering the endless crises she faced.

There was only one case of jealous weakness in her past, that of Shulamit Aloni. I think she was harsh on Shula, not only because of political differences but also because there was some garden-variety jealousy. The consequences of that clash had long-range effects: In due course Aloni abandoned Labor and became a major force in parties to the left, though she subsequently did hold various cabinet posts under Rabin. Golda was also much too appreciative of Moshe Dayan, also with long-term effects (see chapter 18).

The successors of these four prime ministers from Labor have often been their protégés. They served into the 1990’s, and some are still active in the new millennium, but we can learn much from the records of these founders and pioneers of modern Israel.

Reprinted with permission from “The Chase is The Game: The Journeys of an American-Israeli Pioneer” by Saadia Gelb – updated and expanded edition, published by Ameinu Detroit, 2008.

About Saadia Gelb

Saadia Gelb is a lifelong Labor Zionist and kibbutz movement activist who has lived on Kibbutz Kfar Blum since immigrating to Israel from the United States in 1947. He is the author of several books including the recently updated "The Chase is the Game: The Journey of an American-Israeli Pioneer."
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